Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Bolt or the Bug?

Surely you've heard that renowned Mark Twain aphorism: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." It's become a mantra for many writers, a call to focused creativity and compositional excellence, a pledge to rise above mundane prose.

I wonder just how many stories such a commitment has killed.

Don't get me wrong, I love excellent writing. I delight in phrases freighted with literary import, sentences stuffed with alliteration and allusions, all carefully constructed to yield maximum emotional impact. It's all good stuff. Such beauty can print you like a brand.

The problem lies in that such a standard is exceedingly difficult to meet, especially right out of the gate. For those who (like myself) desire to find it, discovering the right word can feel like a stumbling block or an millstone tied around your neck, a barrier to writing rather than an incentive. I can't tell you how many times I've stared at a half-finished page, willing the perfect turn of phrase to come and walking away in a huff when it didn't.

The solution? Well, I've stopped aiming for the right word -- at least at first. Let my early drafts (and perhaps even some of the latter ones) be embarrassingly sloppy. At least I have them. Some say that good is enemy of the best, but I say sometimes the best is enemy to anything at all.

(Picture: CC 2006 by art farmer)


Jim Murdoch said...

The way I have been expressing a similar sentiment is by asking the question: Does it matter if the character in your story says, “Wait a moment,” or, “Wait a second,” or “Wait a minute”? We get the idea. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times before but if you’ve not read it then can I just say that of all the sentences I have ever written the first sentence to my first novel has been reworked more than any other. And when the book was finally published I dug out the very first draft of the book and compared the two versions and there was absolutely no difference, not a comma. That first sentence was written on the spur of the moment with almost no thought put into it at all but it said exactly what I wanted to say. I’m still not happy with it. I doubt I will ever be happy with it. But it does its job.

Davin Malasarn said...

Loren, I think this is a good point. I always consciously permit myself to be mediocre. I forgive myself for not being perfect. This really eases the pressure when I go write, and like you say, you can always fix it later.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

It's also a sneaky suspicion of mine that part of what made Ray Bradbury so popular is his lack of stylistic polish. His stories cary the energy of original composition, but don't feel particularly honed to me. For Bradbury, this isn't a criticism; one fels his distinctive voice would be lost if he were to obsess over perfect verbal craftmanship. For other writers, less focused on dramatic progression and vivid events, it might be a fatal flaw.

Loren Eaton said...


Honestly, being mediocre is the only way I get anything done. If I let my paranoid perfectionism rev itself up, I might as well just leave the paper blank.

Loren Eaton said...


Ah, I'm envious. You see, with my drafts it really does matter if I think before I write. My first efforts, well, they stink. It's okay for them to stink then, I guess, but I sure can't leave them that way.

Loren Eaton said...


Actually, I think that Bradbury's lack of polish was both a strength and a weakness. With some stories (e.g. "The Long Rain"), it worked well. But others just felt weak to me, and I really really like Bradbury.